Less snow is the new norm for the Pacific Northwest — The #LaGrande Observer

Map of the Columbia River watershed with the Columbia River highlighted. By Kmusser – self-made, based on USGS and Digital Chart of the World data., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3844725

From The LaGrande Observer (Nathan Gilles):

In 2020, Oregon experienced some of its driest conditions on record. And yet, despite the overall lack of precipitation, the state’s mountains received more or less normal amounts of snow.

However, above-average spring temperatures melted mountain snow several weeks earlier than normal in several Oregon basins. This led to water flushing through local rivers and streams before it could be used for irrigation during the late spring and summer growing seasons. As temperatures continued to rise throughout the summer, water shortages and drought declarations followed.

Around the same time Oregon farmers were watching their water drain away, a May 2020 study published in the UK-based scientific journal Nature Climate Change literally put the Columbia River Basin on the world map as a watershed whose dependence on snow for irrigation places it on the losing side of climate change.

Here, too, the reason had to do with rising temperatures and melting snow, and here, too, the point was hammered home. The study concluded that under future warming, the Columbia River Basin, the Pacific Northwest’s largest hydrologic basin, is likely to lose so much mountain snow it will experience about the same degree of water scarcity as the Middle East basin containing the Tigris River and Euphrates River. In fact, the Columbia River Basin actually comes out looking a little worse off than the Tigris/Euphrates Basin, according to the study.

Less snow, more problems

Titled “Agricultural risks from changing snowmelt,” the study outlines two ways rising temperatures are expected to lead to water shortages in the future.

In the first condition, snow will accumulate more or less as normal, but melt early due to abnormally warm temperatures, as happened this year in some Oregon basins.

In the second condition, especially warm temperatures will cause precipitation to fall mostly as rain rather than as snow, as happened region-wide during the Northwest’s “snow drought” of 2015.

Study co-author John Abatzoglou, a University of California Merced associate professor in Management of Complex Systems, says more rain and less snow is going to be the new normal as our regional climate warms…

As you’d expect, all basins experienced some degree of snowpack loss under both warming scenarios. But 4 degrees Celsius of warming proved far more detrimental than 2 degrees Celsius of warming…

In the case of the Columbia River Basin, the study’s three-pronged approach — examining current dependence, projected snowpack losses and how much water each basin would need to make up for that lost snowpack — is revealing.

While the Columbia scored better than the San Joaquin and Colorado River Basins in terms of the amount of snowpack it’s expected to lose, the basin’s reliance on snowpack and its need to find new sources of water makes it far more vulnerable than it might at first appear.

Abatzoglou says it’s unlikely the basin can build enough new storage to make up for the natural storage snow provides. But, he stresses, storage is only part of the story. To fully understand the study’s conclusions, you need to look at timing…

For most of the 20th century and into the early years of this century, lack of precipitation during the growing season didn’t present a problem for farming because farmers could irrigate with water from snow that reliably melted during the growing season and reliably accumulated during the off season. But warming temperatures mean not only less snowpack, but also a change in the seasonal timing of that water, which adversely affects irrigation.

Ski areas desperately need snow as #drought intensifies in Summit County — The Summit Daily #snowpack #ColoradoRiver #COriver #aridification

Upper Colorado River Basin drought monitor December 8, 2020.

From The Summit Daily (Taylor Sienkiewicz):

Despite some snowfall in the past week, Colorado’s drought continues to wear on.

The U.S. Drought Monitor places the southern half of the county in extreme drought while the northern half is in exceptional drought, the worst level on the scale.

The Drought Monitor lists large fires, extremely low reservoirs, increased water temperatures and worsening pasture conditions as impacts of an extreme drought. For exceptional drought, the anticipated impacts include widespread dust storms and topsoil removal as well as large agricultural and recreational economic losses.

Statewide precipitation water year 2021 through December 14, 2020 via the NRCS.

Precipitation has been below normal in Colorado since Oct. 1, and drought conditions have “expanded where long-term precipitation deficits continued to mount,” according to a Drought Monitor summary for Dec. 8. Statewide reservoir storage is below normal, and in the past six months, the southwest region of the country, which includes Colorado, experienced its hottest and driest June to November on record.

Upper Colorado River Basin snowpack December 14, 2020 via the NRCS.

Paul Schlatter, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Boulder, said Summit County has seen only 50% of its normal snowfall for this point in December.

Looking back to November, precipitation totals were on opposite ends of the spectrum depending location in the county, Schlatter wrote in an email. The northwest part of Summit County along the Blue River saw 25% to 33% of normal November precipitation while a whopping 125% of normal precipitation fell to the southwest. Precipitation was around normal along the Interstate 70 corridor, Schlatter said.

Westwide SNOTEL December 13, 2020 via the NRCS.

Breckenridge has recorded 54 inches of snowfall this season as of Monday, Dec. 14. By the same date in 2019, the resort had recorded 68 inches, according to On the Snow data. At Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, 35 more inches of snow was recorded by Dec. 14, 2019, compared with this year. Ski areas don’t begin recording their seasonlong snowfall totals until they are open, so lower totals this year also could be attributed to delayed openings. Breckenridge opened five days later this year than in 2019. A-Basin opened 29 days later than last year, in part due to a water shortage that impacted its ability to make snow.

A change in the weather pattern brought as much as a foot of snow to Summit County ski areas over the weekend, and more snow is on the way.

New Mexico gets water victory over Texas at U.S. Supreme Court — The #SantaFe New Mexican

Pecos River at the High Bridge – upstream view. Photo credit: USGS

From The Santa Fe New Mexican (Phil Casaus):

On Monday, the Supreme Court said a river master overseeing the Pecos River compact between the two states correctly decided New Mexico should receive credit for floodwater it stored for Texas after Tropical Storm Odile dropped significant amounts of rainfall into the Pecos River Basin in 2014.

Some of the water had evaporated while in storage by the time Texas was ready to receive it, prompting that state to claim New Mexico failed to meet its obligations. The river master granted New Mexico delivery credits in 2018.

Texas challenged that decision and asked the Supreme Court to review the case.

“The question presented is straightforward: Under the Pecos River compact, does New Mexico receive delivery credit for the evaporated water even though that water was not delivered to Texas? The answer is yes,” wrote Justice Brett Kavanaugh in delivering the opinion of the court.

The Pecos River, which begins east of Santa Fe at the base of the Sangre de Cristos and runs through Eastern New Mexico, is used by irrigators and cities in both states and is the subject of a 1949 compact.

Critical to the case, Kavanaugh wrote, was an email between Texas’ Pecos River commissioner, in which he asked his New Mexico counterpart to hold Texas’ portion of the flow until it could be utilized at Red Bluff Reservoir on the Texas side of the border south of Carlsbad.

New Mexico agreed, but reminded Texas the water belonged to that state and would have been released downstream if not for the request.

New Mexico, Kavanaugh wrote, “also added (correctly as it turns out) the [e]vaporative losses … should be borne by Texas.”

“The text … and the record evidence of the States’ correspondence establish that New Mexico is entitled to delivery credit for the water that evaporated while New Mexico was storing the water at Texas’ request,” the justice wrote.

D’Antonio said New Mexico has a credit of about 166,000 acre-feet under the Pecos compact. That includes the 16,000 acre-feet that were in play in Monday’s case.

Water Law in a Nutshell, January 21, 2021

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Don’t miss this rare and unique opportunity with Aaron Clay in an online setting to learn more about all aspects of the law related to water rights and ditch rights as applied in Colorado. Subject matter includes the appropriation, perfection, use, limitations, attributes, abandonment and enforcement of various types of water rights. Additional subject matter will include special rules for groundwater, public rights in appropriated water, interstate compacts and more.

From his 26 years as a water referee at the Colorado Water Court, Clay brings his wealth of knowledge that earned him a reputation as one of the top experts in water law to this “Water in a Nutshell” course.

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Registration is $35.00, which includes a hard copy of the Citizen’s Guide to Colorado Water Law, Citizens Guide to Interstate Compacts ($20.00 value) and course materials all mailed directly to you. **$55.00 if you wish to receive Continuing Education Credits. Includes Registration, all course materials and CE or CLE’s.

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